On Dec. 3, 1552, St. Francis Xavier died of a fever on Shangchuan, an island 14 kilometers off the coast of China, awaiting a boat that would take him to the mainland. Xavier had had an impressive career of establishing missions all over Portuguese-controlled Asia, including in India, Borneo and Japan, and it had long been his dream to establish a mission in China in order to evangelize one of the greatest societies of all time. Four and a half centuries later, I found myself on another small island off the coast of China rethinking what it means to evangelize in the 21st century.
I arrived on the island of Kinmen, Taiwan, as a grantee in the inaugural Fulbright program for English teaching assistants. Nicknamed the Cold War Island by one scholar, Kinmen has been at the front lines of the cross-strait tension between Taiwan and China for the last five decades.
I have been amazed at the commitment the education department here has to teaching English. It is a top priority because many here view English as the lingua franca. Officials have expressed the belief that English language learning is an essential step for students who hope to be successful in the globalized world.
One day Debby, one of my young students, came to me after class, “Teacher, look, look!” She held up a silver cross that was strung across her neck.
“What does that mean?” I asked her.
“It means I believe in Jesus,” she replied. Her command of English surprised me because our lessons were just covering simple words like run, jump and smile.
I was also surprised because I had never spoken about religion in front of my students. As an English teacher funded by U.S. and Taiwanese tax dollars, it is not my place to talk in the workplace about faith. Yet I have come to learn that many of the non-Fulbright, native English speakers on the island operate as English teachers but with the underlying mission of converting Kinmen students to Christianity. Some days, a man in an orange cap and vest passes out English pamphlets to students in front of my school. For the next few days, I notice scrap paper with the image of the risen Jesus and quotations from the Gospels being used in class. “What does they mean?” a student asked the other day.
The reputation that foreign English teachers have for proselytizing has led me to think about my identity as a Catholic. How can I fully represent my faith and still be respectful of the local culture of Kinmen?
The church has always sought to evangelize. But as episodes like the crusades and the treatment of some indigenous peoples prove, Christianity has not always succeeded. Traveling to a foreign land to tell people that their traditions should be replaced expresses a claim to cultural superiority that is contrary to the message of the Gospel.
In my lifetime, I have been fortunate to work with Catholic missionaries in Central America and the Caribbean who spend their time in nursing homes, shelters and schools working to promote health and education. They are expert bedpan cleaners and math tutors. They listen to the people and genuinely embody the spirit of accompaniment. In them I have witnessed that if you want to teach others about God, you try to behave like Christ. If you want to see God at work, you must see the dignity and worth in every single human being.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in 2000 that the new evangelization is a way toward joy. Christians must be skeptical about the value of converting large numbers of people, if those conversions are not made from the heart. He said: “Large things always grow from a small seed. The mass movements are always ephemeral.” Christians must sow seeds of faith, embody the spirit of the Gospel message and have courage to leave the when and how of the growing to God. In a region where Christians are a small minority, and one so close to China, one of the largest areas of fast-paced Christian growth, the responsibility of Christians to be authentic representatives of their faith is even more vital.
My method of practicing the new evangelization is to recognize the dignity and worth of the individuals I meet in Kinmen. Through my work as a teacher and my interaction with individuals in the community, I have developed a rapport and friendship in which fruitful dialogue can occur. By building the bridge between cultures, the nations and peoples of the United States and Taiwan can grow in understanding and mutual respect.
But on an island with so few foreigners, the Kinmen people often fail to distinguish among English education, American culture and Christianity. Evangelical messages often are disguised as English education, which gives the impression that all English speakers share Christian beliefs. Because most of the students are working simply to grasp the English language, they are not able to engage in dialogue about the significance of the message. Too often, it seems, the intertwining of the all-important English language lessons with Christian teachings results in the notion that converting to Christianity will benefit a student’s career. And many times the implication is that traditional Daoist and Confucian practices are incompatible with modern society.
Generalizations about the West made by the media here, combined with a lack of exposure to foreigners, have given students in Kinmen an oversimplified understanding of Western culture. My students were shocked, for instance, to learn that not all Americans celebrate Christmas.
The life of a Taiwanese Christian can be difficult because for many it means choosing between their family and their religious community. They often feel pressure to choose when celebrating holidays like the Mid-Autumn Festival, in which sacrifices are left for the spirits of the ancestors. One man I met was waiting for his parents to pass away before being baptized, fearing that choosing Christianity would prevent him from participating in the traditional funeral rites.
The Kinmen traditional spirituality is rich. To be an evangelist means to approach this culture with humility, recognizing its beauty and value. The Kinmen culture is very similar to the traditional culture in Fujian, the closest mainland province. Daoist, Confucian and Buddhist morals and teachings blend with every area of life here. There are many temples where local people go to bai bai, or make sacrifices and pray. Because of the casualties of war, it is believed that there are many ghosts. To appease these spirits, my neighbors burn paper money for them to use.
One afternoon, I sat on a cement block at the edge of the water and looked off toward the channel. In the distance, China was large and ominous. I wondered if in his dying days, St. Francis Xavier had stared similarly toward China awaiting the ship to bring him to the mainland. Had he looked out and wondered what he could teach the people of China about Jesus? These days, as the Christian population in China continues to grow, I wonder not what I can teach others about Jesus, but what my students, in their struggles with faith, might teach me.